The bridge

Featured in

  • Published 20130305
  • ISBN: 9781922079961
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

WE’RE RUNNING OUT of time; paving the streets with our striding feet, packs pounding our hips, back and forth. A set of glaring traffic lights; the roar of fallen timber, a log truck gearing down the hill. Sacks of oats, potatoes, sleeping on the footpaths. The drivers and their cigarettes, the smoke layering their singlets, rare fares welling with bustling locals; their aching elbows, assertive bags launched into back seats. Children, their small hands grasped like the shopping. There are no pedestrians, there are rivals, there are drivers and there are irises meeting over black asphalt. I am steadily ignoring the flowering wattlebirds, the bright greenhood orchids, thin and demure, poking from cracks in the concrete. Sweat glues my shoulders to my shirt. I wipe my arm across my forehead. Are we going to make it, you ask with a voice that knocks gently before entering.

Eye of the day, you will not melt the tension in my neck. I carve a smile, check my phone and snare your neck with a stiff arm. We’ll be right. We’ll get a lift.

Thumbing in the back teeth of the city where the roads flow east, tentative suggestions of parkland. A taxi, you had offered at the backpackers, I’m sure they could call us one, what do you think? The young receptionist leaning back at the counter, staring at a screen. I had thought of nights long past when the last bus had roosted in its shed and my lone feet were stuck in the reeling city. The long, quiet walk beside the river, the headlights. The breeze across the bridge and the esplanade spooning the bays, houses creeping from the water into ashen hills. One night, an easy-going woman with her old porch couch of a van, concertina curtains screening the rear, good-turning me out of her way to my father’s dark house.

That house; windows full of river, southerly changes pouring clouds upstream and shaping them in waves.

This is my town, I had remarked, lightly proprietorial. We’ll get a lift down the street for half their price.

Money. We have been clipping tags this week, sleeping on staircases and gathering our food from under tables, sparrowing expenses as I’ve tried to unearth memories. Much is different here now, but I had imagined we would find that lady with her wide hair and rustic van, we would borrow a ride to the new ferry over the river that would murmur us to the art parading on the north shore of Bruny, landscapes in the land, the piles of grey driftwood, of quartzite and sex and life.

But the footpath is an uneven grid; the minutes give up and leave us, we waver left and right, a weary string section, and I wish that I had burnt a few dollars and appropriated your suggestion as my own; that I had argued just enough and then relented, patronising and if it makes you feel better, fine. You are travelling well, just behind me, and I am trying to find something to blame you for, to explain that next time, it would really be more helpful if – when a dusty green van pulls over, more blurred than the one I remember, with windows open and bent roof-racks carrying a scavenged door. The driver with his grey hair and narrow face, his moustache patching immodest wrinkles. His son, perhaps, with mainland hip-hop beating from his earphones, from his blank sunglasses and labelled shirt. He speaks to me, the music still plugged into his head.

You guys need a lift? We were thinking maybe you needed to hit the ferry. Not many taxis around yeah?

A lift? I look down the road. Sure we need a lift. My pack leans back, its harness strapping me tightly, as though I’m dangling from a height.

Cool, he says out the passenger window. He looks back towards his father. Well, we can take you for maybe twenty bucks? What do you reckon? This is pantomime. His father is smiling beatifically. A lift, yes, a lift.

Twenty? I shake my head. It’s a driveway van, after all. This is all locals and under the counter. Look, we’d go for ten, but twenty’s way too much for us.

You are careful not to put your hand on my arm.

Twenty, he repeats, his father’s head nodding beside his own. We’re going like the total other direction. We have to come all the way, back over here again.

C’mon, I’m from here, I say, steady and sure. But thanks anyway. It’s time to walk away, the next step in the haggling process. They’ll be expecting this. What’s more, just a little further down Macquarie Street a real, solid gold taxi is emptying its tin of baked passengers. I run awkwardly with the bouncing pack; you are chasing somewhere behind me as I reach the window. The slumped, bored driver: Ferry port, you’ll take us to the ferry port?

He agrees blearily. We reach towards the back doors. How much, I remember to ask. It’s a flat rate, ten dollars, isn’t it? And perhaps he is about to acquiesce, perhaps we are about to open our doors and sling our gear securely on top of our laps, perhaps we are about to pour down the road, past the old regatta grounds, the tugboats and the mild river, over the bridge connecting with our ferry; perhaps the tension has loosened and all we need to do is stare, confident, concerned, at the calculations of the digital clock as they flicker towards three in the afternoon. But the young man from the van is gesturing, roughly, at the driver’s window.

This is our guy, he’s riding with us, if you take him anywhere we will seriously, and the driver shrugs, drives a few metres on and searches the narrow crowd for a free, unencumbered passenger.

That’s it, I say, raising my palms and throwing them down towards the ground. No, thanks. No way. I drag you down the road, beyond the horizon of the young man’s protests, his yelling. We will find a real taxi or we will return shamefaced to the backpackers or we will walk, we will trudge along the domain highway, weighed down by our clothes and our Huon bowls and the water freshly gathered from the mountain rivulets. Our feet dissolving in our boots. We will camp hard on the concrete bicycle path flanking the bridge, we will scavenge amongst the railings on the empty night tarmac, we will catch the boat next morning, stay for one, two days and miss our flight in a puddle of righteous frustration.

When you wipe your hand gently through my hair, saying, Look, we really need to get a ride, I turn to face you properly for the first time in nearly half an hour. I remember your ears and your cheeks and your nose, the load slumping your back, I remember that you have been calm and considerate, and that even as I hunt for ways to disperse my rage, it is being channelled down a highway at the end of which I imagine you sitting, vague and judgmental. And I am sorry, for a moment I am sorry. And as the van catches us again, crumbling and full of scars, I remember that it is faster than our staggering steps.

The old man has put on a hat and the young man has taken off his sunglasses; a fresh start, a new beginning. You need to go to the ferry port?

How much? I ask again, reluctant but prepared to grasp necessity. How much?

Ten dollars, they say, we’ll take you there for ten dollars. They are almost kneeling in their seats. The van is chipped and old but they have overcome my sole objection. We climb into the back seat and rest our backpacks on our knees as though we are at a circus and they are our children resting on the shapes cast by our tired legs. The van pulls out into traffic, we are on our way, I take hold of your hand and bend your watch towards me. It is still only a quarter to three, we should be fine, we are going to just make it.

We are moving. There is time and space, now, to worry about other things. As we burn past the cenotaph, the Baha’i centre and the old Regatta pavilion, I become aware that we are in a grubby van, with two men who have no endorsement, no card identifying them, no photo hanging from the rear-view and mirroring their faces. Where could they be taking us? We have heard stories, read warnings on lurid, earnest websites. The back of an old sewerage works, our laptop, our money. An ATM and a firm, polite knife. As we leave the city and roll past the Domain, flat-hilled and speckled with sandstone centres, the empty green pastures, gardens of grass and oak, we check and make sure, we are constantly staring and notating out the window, we are touring omens. You fiddle with the name-tag buckled to your pack, you look at it and read it.

I pull a sharp pen from my pocket and I hold it in my hand.

To our right, the river is a deep blue-grey. Over on the far bank are yachts clustered in bays; the road curtails the view of our own side, the slippery blocks of mudstone, but we can see the old railway line lying wistfully, hoping for exercise. The windows of the van are broad, open, and as the driver indicates for the bridge, the salty humidity eases our fears. We turn to each other, we smile.

Your eyes flick forwards.

The father is reaching back, he is trying to hand over a scrappy notebook and a pen. Write your name, your address here.

What? I ask, what do you mean? But I take the bunched stationery, find myself with two pens, slip one back into my pocket.

Write down your name and address, he repeats as I shuffle through the pages, reading other names, travellers from Devonport, Stanley, Coles Bay, and I see that this is his identification, his reference, his testimonial, and then all at once I am master of the present. We are safe, we are safe and we will make the boat, we are safe and we will make the boat, he is begging for my endorsement and I will oblige, I will help the poor bloke out. I begin to write my details but a wary creativity takes over, sabotaging my surname and sending my phone number into a sequence of digits, primes perhaps, or an unconscious Fibonacci progression, posting a toy address, an invented avenue off the island, in the suburbs of Whitemark. The driver’s eyes alternate between the front and back, the bridge and the image of us securely scribbling.

HIS SON’S GLASSES, poised above his head, spill towards the dashboard.

He may have shouted, or pointed ahead. There is skidding, a lurch.

Perhaps it had been building over the decades, strange blends of moon and rain, the gale force tides and the river’s meandering press, and all it took was a droplet to dislodge the broken ship from the muddy bottom.

Tossing and turning on her restless riverbed; the elements, this time, had piloted the ship, sent it sideways like an axe into the quivering pylons, underwater and invisible, a submarine attack that toppled the centre spans, sinking the bridge to its knees, hands raised to break its fall on the bleeding water.

A second storm of concrete and steel.

The view up and down river. Stillness on the lightly floating waves, waking out from a pit of white water. A few seagulls resting on the railings. In the distance, framed by our windscreen, a car leaps cinematically.

We all wait silently; our words could overbalance these scales. We are a photograph repeated, folklore made terrifying flesh. We are featured in books, yellowed newspaper articles, the museum display with the glass and the plasticine wreck. We are waiting to fall as others fell, we are waiting to die, we are waiting to live as others did, going on to tell the story for years; waking with their feet stamping, stretching along a mattress in the empty, groundless air.

Are we on time, I think, are we still on time?

Tiny bird movements from the men, easing their weight towards the rear; the father points silently at the van’s back door. You reach slowly, so slowly to slide the door back, to open the way for us to tiptoe quietly, urgently to the safety of the cliff’s edge, to feel the fresh vertigo of what might have been, of what might still be. As you rest one foot on the bitumen I gently manoeuvre my pack behind me, counterweighting the vehicle, and get ready to escape. The son kneels in the cavern between the front seats. I hear a moist rustle and become aware of the pages in my hand.

I look up to meet your gaze, then reach into my pocket for the other pen. In a trembling scrawl, I complete the fake address in the notebook. I barely lean across to hand it to the old man waiting in the driver’s seat.

He looks down, takes it in his fingers and nods.

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About the author

Ben Walter

Ben Walter is a Tasmanian writer of lyric poetry and fiction. His creative work has appeared in a wide range of journals, including Southerly,...

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